No Aquatic Insect

All I knew was that American Dippers ate aquatic insects.

Neither flashy nor flamboyant, unlike the waxwings you met recently, dippers’ charisma derives less from their looks (though they are by no means unattractive), but rather from their behavior and—not to forget—from their mellifluous vocalizations.

One of five global species of dippers, the range of American Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus) is limited to western North and Central America, where they live and breed along clear and fast-flowing mountain streams. As high-altitude creeks freeze in the wintertime, the birds move to lower elevation waterways, such as Fountain Creek in Colorado Springs, where I regularly see them between November and March.

Measuring about 7.5 inches in length and sporting mostly gray and brown feathers, dippers aren’t conspicuous. One might be rewarded with a sighting by taking a little time to inspect rocks or logs in or along the edge of a stream for a roundish bird with a short, raised tail and a tendency to perform repeated knee bends and to bob its tail. Or one sees its hind portion protrude while the head is dipped below the water’s surface. One might also hear a burbling song which is evocative of the watery world it inhabits. It’s worth your time to follow this link to some voice recordings.

Uniquely among songbirds, dippers walk, swim, and dive underwater in order to capture their food. Nasal flaps prevent water from entering their nostrils and eye adaptations enable them to see while submerged. I had long ago learned that their diet consisted of aquatic insects and neither had observed anything to the contrary, nor had reason to question their main menu choice.


…until I came across this dipper last December and saw something sizeable dangle from its beak. I knew instantly that this was no insect, aquatic or otherwise.

As I subsequently discovered on Cornell’s All About Birds, “The American Dipper eats mostly aquatic insects and insect larvae but will occasionally take other invertebrates, as well as small fish or fish eggs.”

It seemed to take some effort to swallow the fish.

While I’m always enthralled by encounters with North America’s only aquatic songbird, this most recent one taught me novel information about a remarkable creature which only served to deepen my appreciation for the charismatic American Dipper.

52 thoughts on “No Aquatic Insect

  1. Wonderful pictures of the only aquatic songbird. I must admit I wasn’t aware that there were any aquatic songbirds, so your post certainly taught me something new. I clicked on the link to hear the bird’s lovely song. Definitely sounds like a songbird! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is the first time I’ve heard of the dipper. As you say, it’s not particularly colorful, but that behavior is wonderful. It’s always fun to discover a creature engaging in unexpected behavior, too. The first time I saw a Grackle plucking small bait fish out of the water, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’ve seen the behavior a few times since, but never have been able to photograph it. Lucky you to be able to record and share this with us!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Linda, I’m glad I could introduce the dipper to you. Its character and voice definitely make up for its inconspicuous appearance. I felt so lucky to be present right after it caught the fish, and to be able to capture a few images.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Only seen a dipper once in my life although it was a “missed” experience so to speak as I first thought it was another bird, took some shots and moved on … figured it out looking at the shots later that night .. glad to get the check, but I didn’t get a chance to learn anything about this interesting bird. Thanks for bringing me up to speed with great shots as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Another interesting and informative post!

    The Dipper is so cool! I think of it as a song bird who thinks it’s a wading bird.

    I first learned of this bird when it was called the Water Ouzel. Not sure when the common name changed ’cause taxonomists are faster than me. (There is a European dipper also called Water Ouzel so perhaps that is why it was changed.)

    See you out there!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Wally. I love the notion of “a song bird who thinks it’s a wading bird.” That’s just another fun characteristic of this unusual and captivating avian. I also think that water ouzel is a lovely name. We could have maintained it, and named the species over here American Water Ouzel, and the transatlantic cousin European Water Ouzel.


  5. Hurrah for a new experience, Tanja! I’ve never seen a dipper for obvious reason. Well not so obvious unless you know I never travel to the west. Great shots illustrating the behavior! Our Eastern Phoebes sort of dip or wag their tails which is the first sign of seeing one here in the yard.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Steve, it was an exciting and fun discovery for me to make. I really love being able to predict what bird I might be looking at by first noticing a special behavior, such as in the case of your phoebe. It’s like adding another piece to the puzzle.

      Liked by 1 person

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